News • September 21, 2020

CBU professor examines the free exercise of religion for Constitution Day

CBU professor examines the free exercise of religion for Constitution Day

Riverside, Calif. (Sept. 21, 2020) – A Supreme Court ruling in 1990 explains why churchgoers are probably meeting outdoors for church this Sunday, Dr. Chase Porter told an audience at California Baptist University on Sept. 17. Porter spoke at a virtual Constitution Day event, marking the signing of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787. 

Thomas Jefferson is responsible for how the Supreme Court interprets the establishment of religion and free exercise, said Porter, assistant professor of political science at CBU. In his writings, Jefferson said the government cannot regulate belief but it can regulate action. 

“Your belief doesn’t harm anyone in the view of Jefferson but your actions might,” Porter said. “So government cannot regulate belief of religion but is able to regulate the action that flows out of belief in religion. That becomes a very important distinction.” 

Porter talked about Supreme Court cases that have touched on free exercise of religion and public health. The cases involved matters such as polygamy, peyote, vaccines and the Amish. In the vaccine case, the court ruled states have the right to protect the health, safety, welfare and morals of its residents. 

In one of the most recent ones, Alfred Smith was denied unemployment benefits when he was fired from his job for ingesting peyote in a Native American religious ceremony, which was a crime in Oregon. The case landed in the Supreme Court, which ruled for Oregon, in 1990. 

“It said as long as the law is a valid and neutral law of general applicability, then a religious person is not allowed to opt out of that law,” Porter said. “If the law targets religion specifically, that is a different story. The law against peyote wasn’t targeting the religion, it applied to all Oregon residents.” 

The court said people cannot opt out of obeying a law that applies to everyone equally for religious purposes, Porter said. 

“The opinion is that in a society where there is a variety of religious beliefs, and we are trying to respect all of them, if we allow people to start opting out of valid and neutral laws of general applicability on the basis of their religious belief, we’re going to start courting anarchy,” Porter said. 

In the midst of the pandemic, states have regulated church worship, leading to cases going to court. Rulings have gone to both sides, depending if the court said churches were being targeted or not, Porter said. 

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has put churches and indoor movie theaters in the same category in regards to restrictions. 

“Gov. Newsom has wide latitude to treat those two entities the same in the middle of a public health crisis, because the state government has the right to protect the health and safety of its citizens,” Porter said. 

Contact CBU Marketing and Communication

Vice President for Marketing and Communication:
Angela Meluski

8432 Magnolia Avenue
Riverside, CA 92504